Detroit's Segregation Past   

Black Neighborhood

or White Neighborhood?


Text by
Theresa Welsh

Photos by
Theresa Welsh and
David Welsh

Founded in 1701, Detroit's first residents were hardy French explorers looking to make money off the fur trade. Later, the British claimed the city at the straits ("de troit" -- "the strait") and in 1796 it became part of the Territory of Michigan, owned by the fledgling United States of America.

From its pioneer days, Detroit's population was a mixture of ethnic and racial backgrounds, including black residents. The city survived on fur trapping and trading before it moved on to processing iron ore, building stoves, railroad cars and finally automobiles. Other important industries were paint/varnish, pharmaceuticals and shipbuilding. The growth and prosperity of the city brought many job seekers to Detroit. In the Great Migration of African-American people of the World War I era, thousands of black people from the American South came north for jobs, many finding a home in Detroit and a job in the auto factories. Growth of the auto industry in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s brought more people into the city. During the war years of the 1940s when factories hummed round the clock building war goods, housing was particularly scarce. The city reached its population peak of almost two million people in the prosperous post-war 1950s. It was a busy big city of single-family homes with yards, good schools and pretty parks.

1920s to 1960s - PARADISE VALLEY
Black families coming to Detroit first settled in neighborhoods on the near East Side, along St Aubin and Hastings Streets, which ran south down to Jefferson Avenue. This part of town was called Black Bottom because of its rich black soil. A vibrant neighborhood grew in this area, centered on St Antoine and Vernor; it included many night clubs, restaurants and other small businesses. The night life was especially noteworthy with clubs attracting big name stars like Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Sarah Vaughn, Ethel Waters and many others. The area came to be known as Paradise Valley. The housing in Paradise Valley was old, and families lived in crowded conditions, but this was where black people could live; other areas of the city were not available to them. Harmonie Park downtown (photo at right) has been redeveloped as a remembrance of Paradise Valley. Pictures and words etched in the pavement honor the celebrities who were "part of this historical society, people among us who embody the hopes, opportunities, visions, dreams, successes and leadership first created in 'The Valley.'" (from the sign in Harmonie Park dedicated to historian Beatrice M. Buck, who devoted herself to preserving the memory of Paradise Valley.)

In the late 1940s, the city fathers began to plan for redevelopment of what they considered a "slum" -- Paradise Valley and Black Bottom! They drew up a formal "urban renewal" plan to extend I-75 into downtown and build modern apartments adjacent to it, but it wasn't until the 1960s that the city planners were able to put together the funding to make it happen. The bulldozers rolled into Paradise Valley, and the Chrysler Freeway completely erased Hastings Street, while to the east of the freeway, new highrise buildings and suburban-style low-rise apartments and townhouses replaced the old neighborhood. These are shown on current maps of Detroit as Lafayette Park and Elmwood Park.

In 1925, a black physician, Dr. Ossian Sweet, purchased a house on Garland Street at Charlevoix, an attractive home where he and his wife and baby daughter could live. It meant they could move out of their current living arrangement, with Mrs. Sweet's parents. The neighborhood was occupied by all white families, mostly blue collar tradesmen and clerks, some of whom had made threats as they realized their new neighbors were to be a black family. Concerned for his family's safety, Dr. Sweet notified the police when he would be moving in, requesting protection. The police department responded by stationing cops near the house. Moving day went okay, but by the next evening a hostile crowd had gathered in front of the house.

Dr. Sweet had grown up in Florida where he had seen Negroes killed by white mobs. He had been in the thick of a riot, a white mob invading black neighborhoods, when he was attending medical school in Washington DC. His wife Gladys had grown up in Detroit, actually living in a white neighborhood, and did not have the same level of fear of her new neighbors. Dr. Sweet, with his memories of racial violence, had recruited friends for protection and had stocked a closet with guns, just in case he had to actually defend those inside. The baby was staying with relatives.

The crowd grew noisy and some threw rocks at the windows. Dr. Sweet thought he heard someone breaking in and, in fear, distributed the guns to the men inside the house. Amid the turmoil, a car pulled up with Dr. Sweet's brother and a friend who were immediately threatened by the crowd. Shots were fired from the Sweet house and several men who were in the street were hit; one of them was killed. The police, who had not done much to disperse the crowd or protect the people in the house, demanded entry and began arresting everyone.

Dr Sweet, his wife and nine companions were tried for murder. The NAACP saw in the case an opportunity to fight for housing rights for blacks. They hired famous attorney Clarence Darrow to defend those charged in the case. The trial was a national sensation, but ended in a hung jury. A second trial, with only Dr. Sweet's brother on trial (he had admitted to firing a gun into the crowd) ended with a Not Guilty verdict, a relief for all the defendants as all charges against the others were dropped.

Hostility toward blacks moving into a white neighborhood was fueled by real estate agents and mortgage companies whose practice was to downgrade the value of houses in a neighborhood with even one black resident. The white familes who struggled to pay mortgages felt they had to protect the value of their homes, and that meant keeping out Negroes. The Ku Klux Klan, with a large membership in Detroit, fueled the idea that blacks were an inferior race whose presence degraded the Anglo-Saxon ideal, providing an excuse for racial prejudice. Darrow successfully showed that Dr. Sweet and the others were faced with a mob who they believed, based on past incidents, meant to harm them, and they had a right to defend themselves. But, sadly, housing segregation continued in the city.

Why had the previous owner sold the house to Dr. Sweet, knowing his neighbors would object? The answer according to Coleman Young, who, as a young boy, did errands for Dr. Sweet, as related in Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young, is because the prevous owner was a light-skinned black man passing for white. Young's book provides a look at life in a highly segregated city and another excellent book gives you the whole fascinating tale of Dr. Ossian Sweet and the events leading up to the famous trial. This book is Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle. I highly recommend these two books.

Today, the Sweet home still stands and has a historical marker on its front lawn.

In 1942, a mob of angry white people assembled outside a new public housing project called Sojourner Truth Public Housing (named for a woman born into slavery who became advocate for abolition and women's rights) as black tenants were moving in. Some of them were attacked and beaten and had to be taken to a hospital. The location was Nevada Street at Fenelon, an East Side area occupied at the time mainly by Poles. Black and white leaders had both protested the location when it was announced, black leaders because they feared blacks would be met with violence if they they tried to live in this white neighborhood, and the all-white Seven Mile-Fenelon Association because they did not want any poor black people living in proximity to their neighborhood. Federal officials had waffled on whether the development would house blacks or whites, but the urgent need for housing for black families during the war years when so many familes lived doubled-up had tipped it on the side of black occupancy.

The violent reaction of white neighbors to the initial attempt of blacks to move in caused the Feds to quickly shift their position, declaring that the project would be for whites only. World War II was raging in Europe, and the Nazis heard about the racial violence in Detroit and used the story of Sojourner Truth Public Housing as war propaganda. That caused another shift by the Feds: black familes, they declared, would be the tenants after all. As black families moved in to the new housing units, police had to protect them as whites continued to protest. On February 28, a large crowd had gathered at the project, with shouting and accusations on both sides. Violence erupted and 220 people were arrested, with 109 of them (all but three were black) held for trial. Detroit housing officials concluded that black and white could not live peacefully together and a policy of strict racial separation for the city would be continued. This sad event foreshadowed the devastating riot of the following year.

The Sojourner Truth Public Housing project still exists on Nevada Street in Detroit. It continues to be occupied as public housing.

Sunday, June 20, 1943 was a hot day and by evening many Detroiters had headed for Belle Isle, Detroit's beautiful little island in the Detroit River. Black people had few escapes from the urban heat and were trying to cool off on the island's shores. History does not record what started the fighting, but it could have been anything. It was undoubtedly the heat and the hostile relations between blacks and whites that ignited tensions, leading to fighting that spread until it spilled over the bridge to the riverside site of the Brodhead Naval armory. Police arrived and estimated a crowd of about 5000 people were engaged in a violent brawl. Rumours were spread that whites had thrown a black baby off the bridge into the river. Other rumours had blacks attacking whites. Blacks on the East Side, believing the rumours, filled the streets and began looting. The next morning, Monday, people went to work as usual, but it was not a usual day in Detroit. Some white people on their way to work were pulled from cars and beaten and at least one was killed. News of the rioting took hold and whites began forming mobs to fight back. A hostile confrontation developed on Woodward Avenue at Vernor (near the current Chrysler Freeway underpass). White mobs surged through downtown streets, grabbing blacks waiting at the Cadillac Square street car transfer station on their way home from work. Many were beaten.

Mayor Edward Jeffries appealed to Governor Harry Kelly for help. Martial law was declared and 2500 federal troops arrived on Monday night to try to end the riot. Unfortunately, on late Monday afternoon, police approached a hotel at John R and East Vernor where blacks (described in the 1969 book All Our Yesterdays as a "a group of fear-crazed Negroes") were barricaded. Those inside fired on police who promptly returned the fire, shooting many volleys into the hotel. The gunfight went on until a number of people inside were dead and some policemen were wounded. Violence continued in the days that followed. Troops remained until June 30, patrolling the city and enforcing a curfew until a measure of calm returned to the city. When it was over, 34 people had been killed and many more injured in the rioting.

Built with federal money in the 1930s, the Brewster Projects (later renamed "Brewster-Douglass") offered black families another housing option to living in the crowded, substandard housing of Black Bottom neighborhoods. Located just north of downtown and east of Woodward, adjacent to Paradise Valley, "the projects" included six high rise buildings as well as low-rise townhouses covering five city blocks long by three blocks wide during its peak years of occupancy. A city Recreation Center next to the site had been built specifically for black youth; it offered outdoor and indoor recreation including a gym and swimming pool. The families who lived there had nice apartments and there was always a waiting list to get in. Built for middle-class families, the city required that someone in the family have a job to qualify for an apartment.

In later years, a number of well-known people (including Diana Ross and the Supremes) would grow up in the Brewster Projects. However, interest in public housing began to wane in the 1960s and Brewster, along with other public housing developments in the city, became less desireable. Rampant crime began to destroy the formerly family-friendly environment. Instead of waiting lists, public housing projects became mostly empty units in search of tenants. Brewster-Douglass was completely abandoned by 2008.

Don't look for these buildings today; four remaining high rise buildings were demolished in 2014. An adjacent low-rise development, New Brewster Homes, continues to be offered as public housing and is mainly occupied by senior citizens.

Middle-class blacks who could raise money for better housing had a place to go: Conant Gardens, located along Conant at Nevada, extending north to Seven Mile Rd. This is one of the first areas where blacks could buy homes outside their historic neighborhoods on the near East Side. The houses are of many types, all custom built for those who could afford them. Today, there is a historic marker on the corner of Conant and Nevada at a small park, commemorating the historic neighborhood.

Another pocket of black habitation was in the area of Eight Mile and Wyoming, on the northern edge of the city. By the 1940s, blacks had been able to buy land in this mostly undeveloped area, but most could not afford to build nice houses or get building loans, so the structures here were small and substandard by the measure of new housing of the era. The area also had temporary war housing that was later torn down. When a white developer obtained land nearby for purposes of building a subdivision for whites, he found he could not get financing because the land was too close to an area where blacks lived. The developer cut a deal with his financiers to put up a six-foot cement wall between his houses and those owned by blacks. This wall, the infamous "segregation wall" separating white-occupied homes from black-occupied homes, still stands today. [See photo at top of page and more photos and map below] In recent years, wall artists have painted a long mural illustrating the problem of segregation that the wall represents.

Blacks also settled across Eight Mile Road (Detroit's northern boundary) into an area of Royal Oak Township which never was annexed by adjacent suburbs of Oak Park and Ferndale. This little enclave of black history still exists as Royal Oak Township.

In the 1960s, Civil Rights legislation was passed outlawing discrimination in jobs and housing. Jerome Cavanaugh, Detroit's young Irish mayor, had appealed to black voters and thought of himself as progressive. There was no longer an offical policy of racial separation in housing, but Detroit's neighborhoods remained stubbornly segregated.

On Sunday, July 23 1967, violence began on 12th street (now called Rosa Parks Blvd) at Clairmount. In the middle of the night, the police raided a "blind pig" (an illegal after-hours drinking establishment) and the white police began rounding up and arresting the black patrons. But the black community had long felt they were regularly harassed by the police and this time they resisted. As the 82 patrons who were arrested were being ferried to the precinct station by paddy wagon, a fight broke out. Over the next few hours more people poured into the street until the situation got out of hand and police were unable to control the growing angry crowd. Soon rioters were setting fires, breaking shop windows and looting the stores.

Police, acting on previous orders of Mayor Cavanaugh and Police Commissioner Ray Girardin, refrained from taking tough action against the rioting crowd. Cavanaugh had integrated city agencies and instituted policies for police to exercise restraint when dealing with dissidents. He had joined 125,000 black and white marchers led by Dr Martin Luther King in 1963 as they marched down Woodward Avenue in support of civil rights for blacks. He did not expect to be presiding over a city in racial turmoil. Hadn't the city moved beyond the problems of 1943?

I have a personal connection to the 1967 riot, which left 44 people dead. I experienced it first-hand, up close and personal. See my own story of living through a riot, Detroit: From Industrial Giant to Empty Landscape. My husband and I were newly-weds, living in an apartment just a mile or so from where the riot began.

The previous stories on this page are history, their content from my collection of books on Detroit and its history and from museums and historical markers around the city. But, I don't need a book, a museum or a historical marker to tell me what happened in July, 1967. I was there, right where it started, and I KNOW the enormous impact it has had on the city of Detroit. The city's problem with mass abandonment of homes, neighborhoods and businesses can be traced in great part to the civil disturbance of July 1967. (July, 2013: Governor Rick Snyder, in his press conference concerning Detroit's filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, says there are 78,000 abandoned structures in Detroit waiting for demolition. Now THAT'S serious abandonment!!)

The long history of racial separation and the animosity it breeds was lurking in the streets of the city in the summer of 1967, exploding into a violent week of rioting and looting. The riot accelerated the city's decline, with so many people leaving that the city's population shrunk by two-thirds, houses stood empty and crime took over. Studying what went before (the incidents related on this page) shows the origins of these problems go way back in the city's history. We need to come to a time when, to paraphrase President Barack Obama: There are no black neighborhoods. There are no white neighborhoods. There are just neighborhoods.

Roman S. Gribbs was Detroit's last white mayor before the historic election of Coleman A. Young in 1974. It was a turning point. No more would the "white establishment" be in charge of Detroit. The citizens, who were increasingly black, elected Young, who had a long record of promoting the interests of the black community as a union activist and state senator. He was mayor of Detroit until he decided not to run again in 1993. He passed away in 1997.

Young had grown up in Black Bottom, his parents having migrated from Alabama. As a young man growing up in an urban culture, he was intimately familiar with its usual vices like illegal gambling and the numbers racket, and he participated in such nefarious activities as shoplifting and smuggling booze from Canada during Prohibition. He liked to hang out at Maben's Barber Shop and discuss the political happenings in the city. During World War II, he trained as a Muskegee Airman, but never served. His activism got him in trouble and he was grounded. In public life, he never minced words or let up on those he saw as enemies.

Mayor Young worked well with the white business leaders and was on good terms with President Jimmy Carter from whom he obtained federal funds for a variety of projects, but Mayor Young was mostly the mayor of black Detroit, not of what was left of white Detroit. He had an abrasive personality, and had little use for some of the white people who might have supported him out of liberal sentiment. In his autobiography, he refers to these types as "bleeding-heart, pansy-ass liberals."

To get my thoughts on living under Mayor Young (I lived in the city while he was mayor), see my review of his autobiography, a book well worth reading. It is full of the colorful expletives for which hizzoner was known, but also provides insight into a unique time in Detroit's history, as it transitioned to being a predominantly black city. Like him or not, Coleman Young left his mark on the city he loved and led for 20 years.

Forty years after the election of Coleman Young, a white man, Mike Duggan, was elected mayor of Detroit. With a long resume of qualifications as a turn-around specialist, Duggan had worked in Wayne County government as a prosecutor, had managed a regional bus system and, as CEO of a large health care complex in Midtown Detroit, had saved it from hospital closings and possible bankruptcy. He made history by winning the primary election as a write-in candidate... and he won by a huge margin!

Detroit is 85% black, yet they elected Duggan to be the first white person to serve as mayor since 1974. Why? Most who are asked this question say because he was the best candidate, more qualified and more likely to fix the city's problems than his opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon.

So, does his election mean we are living in a post-racial era? Probably not, judging by the many current scandals around our country involving white police harassing and killing black people. More likely, Detroiters are simply fed up with crime and are desperate enough to put aside the issue of race.

It didn't hurt either that Duggan campaigned vigorously in the black community, attending some 200 backyard parties in every part of the city and even winning the endorsement of the black ministers. He was tireless and fearless in pursuing the office of mayor.

It seems to me that most of us are willing to look past race when we see no threat, no harm to us or our way of life, in choosing a candidate with a different racial identity from us. Apparently, black people trust Mike Duggan, just as many white people trusted Barack Obama and voted for him. The fact that whites have adopted much of black culture and that middle-class blacks live and talk pretty much like middle-class whites has eliminated a large portion of our differences. This may not be apparent to young people, but, for me, growing up in the 1950s and coming of age in the 1960s, the difference between then and now is huge.




DETROIT, 8 MILE-WYOMING   Built in the 1940s by a developer so he could get federal financing for an all-white subdivision, "The Wall" separated black-occupied homes from an area designated for whites. Today this "wall of shame" stretches along Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground just south of Eight Mile Road and west of Wyoming, also running behind houses north of the park.

The wall is covered with a colorful mural suggesting its history and purpose as a barriar between black and white neighborhoods, but reflecting a desire for peace and understanding.

pic pic


pic HAMTRAMCK   Before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball in 1947, black players had their own leagues. The Detroit Stars organized in the late 1910s and became a charter member of the Negro National League in 1920. That league did not last and the Stars became an independant team at the end of 1931 but joined the newly-organized Negro American League in 1937.

The Stars played in three different parks over their existence, first at Mack Park on the East Side until it burned down in 1929, then in Hamtramck Stadium (shown in these photos) and playing their final year at DeQuindre Park. The Detroit Starís greatest player was Turkey Stearnes, a prolific home run hitter who played center field. He also worked in the auto plants because he could not live on what he made playing baseball. Many immortals of baseball played here, including the great pitcher Satchel Paige.

The remains of the ballpark still stand in a corner of Veterans Park in Hamtramck. The city of Hamtramck owns it and is seeking a historic designation for it with hopes of preserving it for the future. The stadium is just one of five remaining ballparks that were home to Negro League baseball teams. As black players were accepted in the major leagues and their minor league affililates, the Negro Leagues gradually vanished into history, another legacy of segregation.

 ~ For more historic locations in Detroit, see my ebook, A Guide to Post-Industrial Detroit: Unconventional Tours of an Urban landscape. See information below.


 By Theresa Welsh

  • My Story  Detroit: From Industrial Giant to Empty Landscape
      It's July, 1967 and my wedding party was a riot.
  • Revisiting the Site of the 1967 Riot
  • Detroit: Remembering My Days as a Welfare Worker
       And How a Once-Bustling Neighborhood Turned into Empty Countryside
  • Detroit History: Its Segregation Past
  • Abandoned Detroit: Empty Houses That Used to be Homes
      thousands of abandoned homes throughout the city
  • Detroit's Auto Industry History:
       Abandoned Packard Plant
  • Detroit's Auto Industry History:
       Abandoned Fisher Body Plant
  • See MORE PICTURES of sights along Woodward Avenue.
  • Detroit's Abandoned Neighborhoods
  • Touring the D: All kinds of Abandonment
  • See Abandoned Schools in Detroit
  • See The Heidelberg Project
       Detroit Discards Become Unique Urban Art

      Read My Reviews of these:

     Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young

     Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle

     Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

     The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey

     Made in Detroit by Paul Clemens

    Detroit's Spectacular Ruin: The Packard Plant

    Detroit's Most Spectacular Ruin!
    240 Captioned Photos

    eBook for Kindle and Other eReaders

    More Information

    Only $6.95


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    A Guide to Post-Industrial Detroit: Unconventional Tours of an Urban Landscape

    eBook for Kindle and Other eReaders

    Complete Description

    Only $6.95


    Google Play

    Apple iTunes

    Other Online Stores

      BOOKS ABOUT DETROIT    Click on a book image below to go to for more information.

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